Washington State Legislature Strengthens Oversight of Private Special Education Schools
This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with The Seattle Times. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.
Washington lawmakers voted nearly unanimously Friday to strengthen oversight of private special education schools that serve some of the state’s most vulnerable public school students.
These schools, called nonpublic agencies, received more than $50 million in public funding last school year to serve roughly 500 public school students with complex disabilities. But an investigation by The Seattle Times and ProPublica revealed that weak state oversight had allowed serious problems to fester for years at the largest of the schools in Washington state.
A wide-ranging bill, proposed in response to the stories, passed on Friday and is expected to be signed by Gov. Jay Inslee. It would expand the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s responsibility to investigate complaints and ensure programs have qualified staff.
The schools are meant to provide individualized curricula to students whose needs are too great to be met in traditional public schools.
The Times and ProPublica reported last year that the Northwest School of Innovative Learning — which operates a network of campuses in Tacoma, Redmond and Tumwater — had faced a steady stream of complaints alleging abuse, misuse of locked isolation rooms to manage student behavior and classes led by unqualified aides instead of certified teachers.
The legislation addresses “a travesty that has occurred” at Northwest SOIL, which served dozens of public school students, Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, who chairs the House Education Committee and authored portions of the bill, said Thursday on the House floor. Students “were not only not receiving special education services, but they were also not receiving their basic constitutional right to an education,” she said.
The legislation would create a centralized repository of complaints against these schools.
For years, school districts across western Washington fielded alarming reports about Northwest SOIL. Though some of these complaints made it to state education officials, many stayed at the school district level, making it difficult for regulators to spot widespread issues.
Fairfax Hospital, the largest private psychiatric facility in Washington, owns Northwest SOIL and defended its program, denying allegations that it misused restraint holds or skimped on staffing.
Following The Times and ProPublica’s reporting, OSPI launched an investigation into Northwest SOIL in January. The state requested a trove of records and set deadlines in February and March. As of April, however, the inquiry is ongoing, and the state is still collecting documents from the private school, according to OSPI.
In a statement to the news organizations last week, the agency noted that the information it requested covers several years through the present and that the probe may include interviews and on-site visits. “It is our priority to fully understand the scope of the concerns being raised and assess the responses from the three NW SOIL campuses in order to identify appropriate next steps,” the agency said in a statement.
The bill, SB 5315, also requires these private schools to report police incidents to school districts and OSPI. Currently, there is no explicit requirement that the schools report police investigations. State officials said they were unaware of several police investigations at Northwest SOIL until The Times and ProPublica reported on allegations that one teacher choked students and another dragged a boy across a classroom.
“We all agree that there needs to be a tighter rein and more accountability for these schools, for vulnerable students,” said Sen. Claire Wilson, D-Auburn, who filed the legislation at the request of OSPI. The House passed the bill unanimously, while the Senate passed the bill with just one vote against it.
Currently, these private schools are subject to few state requirements. OSPI reviews annual applications that include staff lists and certification details. But the programs do not have to provide a specific curriculum or employ more than one special education teacher.
The legislation would tighten oversight, requiring annual visits and contracts with school districts that detail education plans and curriculum. It would also require more staff training at the private schools.
Some school districts accused Northwest SOIL of billing for services it never provided, including one-on-one aides. In 2021, the school’s top administrator reported to a school district that Northwest SOIL skimped on qualified staff, curriculum and basic education tools so Fairfax Hospital’s multibillion-dollar parent company, Universal Health Services, could increase profits.
Fairfax Hospital denied the allegations that it cut corners on education and staffing in a past statement to The Times and ProPublica. UHS said it had no comment beyond Fairfax’s statement.
Fairfax also did not respond to a request for comment on the legislation when it was first filed in January.
“We want to make sure we can get that public money back if schools are accused of overbilling and not providing services,” said Rep. Travis Couture, R-Allyn, who said his caucus pushed for the financial accountability provisions in response to The Times and ProPublica’s reporting.
Wilson said there was broad agreement over the need to strengthen oversight and accountability, but the House and Senate versions contained some small differences that had to be worked out. The bill passed with just two days left in the legislative session after a last-minute debate among lawmakers and ultimately included provisions suggested by both bodies.
For instance, the original Senate version did not include state auditor oversight, and the House version did not call for a centralized tracking system for complaints. The bill also renames nonpublic agencies as “authorized entities.”
The Washington Federation of Independent Schools, a nonprofit that represents private schools, worked with Wilson’s office on the legislative language. Many of the private programs are certified by the state Board of Education, though some are not. Northwest SOIL is among the programs that is not formally certified as a private school.
Suzie Hanson, the federation’s executive director, noted that many certified private schools already offer comprehensive programs. The group supports “whatever the law can do to make sure there is accountability, responsibility and recognition that the work being done is difficult and good and needs to be done by experts and by people who care a lot about making sure students get what they need,” she said.